As many as four in five American adults have been infected with a microbe called human cytomegalovirus. Infection rates climb in older populations: more than 90 percent of people over 80 have the virus. The good news is that having the virus doesn’t necessarily mean exhibiting any symptoms; the bad news is the virus is tenacious, and while a healthy immune system can suppress it, it never goes away. Moreover, it does show symptoms in babies, typically jaundice, low birth weight, enlarged spleen or liver, or a rash, though babies who are monitored seldom have serious problems due to cytomegalovirus later in life.
It’s a little more serious when it makes adults sick. People who have weakened immune systems, such as after bone marrow or organ transplants, can become very sick—sometimes fatally so—as a result of cytomegalovirus infection. Symptoms in adults include changes in behavior, blindness, coma, diarrhea, encephalitis, hepatitis, pneumonia, seizures, and digestive ulcers which sometimes bleed.
If you have these symptoms, or if you have reason to believe you’re infected and have either a compromised immune system or are pregnant, it’s important to see a doctor. Treatment is not needed—or even recommended—for people who are showing no symptoms and are not otherwise affected. A doctor who determines that treatment is needed can prescribe the antiviral drugs used to treat cytomegalovirus when it does pose a serious threat.
Another group of people who should be treated are patients with certain types of brain cancer. A recent study at The Ohio State University found that while cytomegalovirus does not cause cancer itself, it does impede the body’s defenses against tumors that are already established. This can actually help the cancer, called glioblastoma, to grow more rapidly.
The study’s authors suggest that the brain cancer reactivates the usually dormant virus, which in turn makes changes to the tumor that help it to grow and thrive. They say that in light of these findings, cytomegalovirus should be looked for and, if necessary, treated in cancer patients as well as babies and people with weakened immune systems.